Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 221

Toxic benzene spill moves to Russia (Reuters photo)

On November 13, an explosion at an aniline plant owned by Jilin Petrochemical, a subsidiary of the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), rocked northeastern China and killed five people. A preliminary investigation reportedly indicated that the incident was caused by a plant operator who neglected to shut a valve properly.

Now a 50-mile-wide spill of toxic benzene is headed toward Russia, creating an unexpected irritant in bilateral relations. Russian Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu said on November 28 that all emergency services in Khabarovsk region should be put on high alert in anticipation of the approaching chemical spill. The Russian Natural Resources Ministry issued a statement indicating that polluted waters are expected to reach the Russian border along Amur River (known as Heilongjiang in China) at any time (Interfax, RTR-Vesti, November 28).

The spill has dominated Russia’s domestic television news and other leading media organizations, both state-controlled and liberal. Chinese authorities estimated that some 100 tons of benzene and nitrobenzene were released into the Songhua River following the Jilin explosion. However, Oleg Mitvol, deputy head of Russia’s Rosprirodnadzor environmental watchdog, said on November 28 that the Chinese authorities have provided unreliable information about the movement of the spill.

Following an initial period of official silence, Chinese authorities deployed damage-control measures. On November 26 Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing met Russian Ambassador to Beijing Sergei Razov to apologize for the spill and promised assistance to Russia to deal with the consequences. On behalf of the Chinese government, Li expressed regret over possible damage, adding that China “fully understands and attaches great importance to the concerns of the Russian side.”

Both sides have agreed to open a hotline on the spill problem, and China has begun to brief its neighbor about the latest developments on daily basis, Li said. Moreover, Li pledged “to provide assistance and cooperation to Russia, if there is a need from the Russian side.” He also suggested the two countries “work jointly to overcome the effects incurred by the disaster, in the spirit of the strategic partnership of cooperation” (RIA-Novosti, Xinhua, November 26).

Moscow appears to have accepted Chinese apologies. The disaster is a common challenge for both Russia and China, and both sides should deal with this issue “from the strategic point of view” and work jointly to tackle the incident, according to Ambassador Razov. However, he told the Chinese that the Russian central and local governments remain “very concerned” about the consequences of the disaster. After the meeting Razov announced that Russian experts would be allowed to inspect the Jilin plant (RIA-Novosti, Xinhua, November 26).

Meanwhile, Russian officials have indicated plans to seek compensation from China. “I think that the guilty side should finance measures to tackle the environmental disaster,” Alexander Kosarikov, deputy head of the environmental committee of Russia’s lower house of parliament, told journalists in Moscow.

But despite Chinese apologies, some Russian officials have threatened legal action. Russia will file suits in international courts to claim damages from China following the spill, said Viktor Shudegov, head of the committee for environment, education and science of the Russian Federation Council, the upper house of parliament. The Chinese side must compensate for the damages but are unlikely to do it voluntarily, he added (RIA-Novosti, November 24-25).

Authorities from Russia’s Far Eastern Khabarovsk region have ordered residents of villages along Amur River to avoid using water from the river, Khabarovsk deputy regional governor Vladimir Popov announced. Many residents of the Khabarovsk region are reportedly facing drinking water shortages and there was some panic buying of bottled water (RIA-Novosti, November 24-25).

The authorities in Khabarovsk region also banned all fishing along the 200-kilometer-long stretch of the Amur shore from Novoye town to Khabarovsk city. In order to deal with the emergency, Khabarovsk region now has some 50,000 tons of drinking water stockpiled, the authorities said.

The spill also comes as a grim reminder of the broader issue of China’s role in polluting the Amur River, which provides 95% of the water supply for the one million residents of Khabarovsk territory. The Songhua River (known as Sungari in Russia), an Amur tributary, is the primary source of pollution for Amur, according to a November 26 statement from the Khabarovsk office of the Chemical Safety Union, an environmental NGO. Roughly 80% of all waste in Amur comes from Sungari, it added.

In all, about six million people live in Russia’s Amur basin. In the meantime, seven million people live in the Amur (Heilongjiang) basin in China. There are also some 11,000 oil and gas wells as well as about 200 industrial enterprises built without any water treatment networks in China. The waste, including oil products, industrial, agricultural, and household sewage, moves from the Chinese Amur basin to the lower Amur in Russia. Consequently, fish in the lower Amur tend to contain lead, cadmium, arsenic, and mercury, the Chemical Safety Union reported (Itar-Tass, Kazinform, November 26).

China’s chemical spill has shined a spotlight on the unequal roles that Russia and China play in polluting the Amur River basin.